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A Short Commentary on F-35 Journalism

 
Photograph of an F-35 flying in the air - stacked.
 Department of Defense photograph.

In addition to the quality reporting on the F-35 by several reporters, there is some at the other end of the spectrum-sometimes from defense journalists; sometimes from local reporters.  Two examples follow, with comments and examples of readily available materials they overlooked, suggesting they served some purpose other than journalism.

At DOD Buzz, an author describes a gravity weapon release test as the "successful" precursor to an article on how DOD's acquisition czar, Frank Kendall, and Lockheed are looking forward to realizing the F-35's previously scheduled increase in production for 2015. 

Yes, the 2,000 pound GBU-31 JDAM did successfully demonstrate the laws of gravity by falling cleanly out of one of the F-35's bomb bays.  And yes, no so-painfully-obvious mess-up is occurring right now to require yet another production reduction/stretch-out to be reluctantly accepted by F-35 advocates.  But is any of that sufficient news for the prime news slot on at the top of a major defense journalism media website? (See the July 11 version of the DOD Buzz website.)

And, if you think everything is going just swimmingly for the F-35, I urge you to read the June 19 testimony of DOD's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Michael Gilmore, at the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  If you want to make a summary list of all the problems he cites, you'll need several sheets of paper.

The recurring reporting of non-F-35 events is a part of a very obvious campaign at the Pentagon and Lockheed-Martin to maintain a steady stream of good (if meaningless) news about what others call the "mistake jet."  The press mavens at DOD and L-M, who seem to be working closely together, are certainly earning their pay.  (The comments after the article at DOD Buzz add more insight than the article.)

There is, of course, more.  Bad F-35 reporting is hardly rare.

The Daily News of Jacksonville NC wrote a puff-piece about the arrival of a Marine Corps F-35B at MCAS Cherry Point.  It describes the arriving aircraft as the "second production model of the F-35B to be completed;" it is as if all the modifications needed for a production version of the F-35B are done (they won't be until after initial operational test and evaluation is finished in 2019-actually well after that), and it is as if this F-35B were ready for complete and normal flight operations; it isn't and won't be for years. 

Nor did the article point out, for example, that Cherry Point requires a specially built refractory pad to resist the extreme heat and velocity of the F-35B's exhaust when the aircraft employs its vertical landing characteristic.  Had he probed a bit, the author might have found a piece at Time Magazine's Battleland website that addressed that refractory landing pad that the Marine Corps press flack at Cherry Point forgot to mention. 

Interestingly, the article makes the statement "The Joint Strike Fighter program is the most expensive in the history of the Department of Defense at $400 billion, according to a June 3 Time magazine article."

That "June 3 Time magazine article" is presumably the one I wrote and that was published by Time on that date.   But the Jacksonville paper's citation is misleading, if that is the case: I didn't say the F-35 program cost $400 billion (about); that's the Pentagon's figure to buy it.  (And, DOD says it'll cost another $1.1 trillion to operate it.)

Moreover, in the same paragraph (implying the same data source), the Jacksonville article says "The Marine Corps F-35B model, which has the ability for short vertical takeoffs and landings similar to the Harrier, costs about $159 million each." Aside from the fact that F-35Bs are not intended for vertical take-offs (hence its Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing, or "STOVL," nomenclature), my Time article began a series that went to some length to argue that no F-35B (or A model for the Air Force or C model for the Navy) will ever cost as little as $159 million each.  Perhaps the Jacksonville article had a typo; at $259 million each, it would have been quite close for an F-35B.  It's all explained in a short summary at Time.

The Jacksonville article's author probably needed to imply he had done real research on the F-35 and therefore cited Time Magazine; that's not research; it's mis-search, but that sort of evaluation is nothing new for the mistake jet.

Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight

By: Winslow Wheeler
Director, Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO, POGO

Mr. Wheeler's areas of expertise include Congress, the Defense Budget, National Security, Pentagon Reform and Weapons Systems

The goal of the Straus Military Reform Project is to secure far more effective military forces and much more ethical and professional military and civilian leadership at significantly lower budget levels.

We would like to thank Philip A. Straus Jr. and family for their generous support.

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